How can you tell if you have a disengaged employee? Ask these 11 questions.

Employee motivation isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Ask these questions to get to the bottom of it.

“What really motivates employees?” A CEO asked me this recently, quite skeptical of the deluge of books and articles on what influences employee engagement and performance.

It’s managers! It’s career opportunities! It’s learning and development! It’s employee recognition! It’s all of the above!

What “the experts” say is dizzying. The truth is simpler.

Research shows that employee motivation boils down to one thing: Progress. A 2010 study published in Harvard Business Review describes how making progress on meaningful work is the number one indicator of employee engagement.

When employees make headway toward a significant goal, overcome obstacles in a reasonable timeframe, and feel supported in their work, their motivation is the strongest. When they feel their wheels are spinning, run into preventable roadblocks, or notice the end-goal is constantly changing, their motivation wanes.

Given this, if there’s only one thing you should be focused on as a manager, it’s progress. You want to be relentless about discerning, “Are employees making progress on meaningful work every day?” With limited time and competing priorities, you don’t have to make employee engagement more complicated than this.

To best distinguish how your employees feel about the progress they’re making, I’ve pulled together 11 questions from the data we’ve collected through Know Your Team over the past four years, specifically designed to tune into an employee’s sense of progress.

You may be wondering, “Why can’t I just ask my team, outright, ‘Do you feel like you’re making meaningful progress on the work you’re doing?’” Absolutely, you can. And you should. But pose that question enough times, over time, and fatigue sets in. You’ll notice your employees starting to answer “Yes” out of knee-jerk reaction, not genuine reflection… or, to just to get you off their backs.

Instead, these questions below will bring into your view invaluable insights that an employee might not always divulge: The root cause of why they feel the project is quicksand, who on their team is the pain-in-the-ass nitpicker causing unnecessary friction, and what you can do about it.

Here are the 11 questions to figure out if employees feel they’re making meaningful progress — and what we’ve found most employees say in response:

#1: Is there anything you worked on recently that you wish you could do over?

Dissatisfaction should always cause your ears to perk up — and this question is particularly effective at unearthing it. You’ll learn if an employee was dissatisfied with the outcome of a project because of team dynamics, or because it was rushed, or because there wasn’t enough direction given. Either way, the answer to this question will point to how you can better support an employee on certain projects. Notably, 67% of employees who we asked this question to through Know Your Team  said, “Yes, there’s something I wish I could do over” (877 employees responded across 137 companies).

#2: Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?

To uncover what blockers someone is facing, we tend to rely on stock questions like, “What challenges are you facing?” or “Are you struggling with anything right now?” While there’s nothing inherently wrong with those questions, because these questions tend to be overused, you may not always get the honest answers you’re looking for. Rather, asking what is holding them back helps you triangulate more specific challenges an employee faces, while avoiding routine answers. In fact, we found 58% of employees said, “Yes, something is holding me back from doing my best work” (1,027 employees responded across 124 companies) when asked through Know Your Team .

#3: Do you feel like customers directly benefited from the work you did this week?

Progress feels most meaningful when you can see the impact that you’re making. So knowing whether or not an employee feels like customers benefited from their work is a useful proxy for progress. The good news too is that when asked, we’ve found that 90% of employees say, “Yes, I feel like customers directly benefited from the work I did this week” (1,114 employees responded across 134 companies).

#4: Do you wish you could be working on a different project right now?

Affinity toward a project can signal an employee’s sense of progress. Someone may purely be intrinsically disinterested in the subject matter of the project, while others could be sick of tolerating bad blood on a team, or an employee might feel the work you assigned to them is a mismatch of skill. In all situations, there’s more to poke around and learn more — and this question helps lay that bare. Nearly a third of employees we surveyed (29%) said they wish they could be working on a different project right now (1,942 employees responded across 148 companies).

#5: As a company, do you think we’re behind the curve on anything in particular?

For employees to feel they are making progress, they need to feel the company as a whole is making progress. This question reveals that. It’s disheartening as an employee to pour their best work into their team, but feel the company doesn’t prioritize areas that it should be ahead in. Perhaps most fascinating is that the majority of employees say, “Yes” to this question: 65% of employees think their company is behind the curve on something in particular (1,267 employees responded across 190 companies).

#6: Do you feel like you’re spread too thin right now?

“Overworked, scattered, drained” — these are all hints that an employee doesn’t feel she’s making sufficient progress. Not to mention, overworked employees report more health problems, and as a direct consequence are less productive and use more sick days. Yet, it’s rare an employee will come up and tell you outright: “I’m overworked.” However, asking if someone feels “spread too thin” is a much more palatable to answer. It doesn’t have an employee feeling guilty or wondering if their work ethic will be in question. We found that 36% of employees (slightly more than a third!) said they feel spread too thin right now (2,173 people responded across 179 companies).

#7: Do you think we’re doing our best work right now?

Ask this question to get an idea of if your employee thinks the team is holding itself to a high enough standard. If she feels good about the quality of the work, then you can likely deduce she feel good about the progress of work being made. Encouragingly, we found 59% of employees surveyed said, “Yes, I feel the company or team is doing the best work right now” (1,073 employees responded across 160 companies).

#8: Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?

When an employee feels like they could be doing more, it’s probable that she is discontent with the rate of progress that she could be making in her current role. Ask this question to recognize out what other projects, skills, or knowledge domains an employee wants to dive into — or if there’s more growth opportunities you could provide them with in her current role. This will help you figure out how to ensure they’re motivated. Take notice that an overwhelming majority — 76% of employees — surveyed said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees responded across 135 companies).

#9: Are you being forced to do something that you think is a waste of time?

Nothing feels more depleting for someone’s motivation than wasting time. Asking this question will draw your attention to the excess baggage weighing your team down, or pointless bottlenecks holding up your team. We found that 25% employees said, “Yes, they’re being forced to do something that is a waste of time” — which is not insignificant (852 employees responded across 113 companies). Ask this question to accelerate progress for your employees.

#10: Are you working on a project that you feel like has gone on too long?

When a project drags out forever, an employee’s motivation to see it through naturally diminishes. You’ve most-likely felt this way in your own career, feeling dejected or peeved when a project stalls for a reason outside your control. Now as a manager, you’ll want to detect within your own team who is feeling this way. We discovered a surprisingly high number — 37% of employees — feel that they were working on a project that had gone on too long (615 employees responded across 94 companies). Identify which projects those are, so you can help remove barriers to progress.

#11: Is there any red tape you’d like to cut at the company?

Policies that are no longer necessary, procedures that you’ve even forgotten were there in the first place — this all slow down the rate of progress. Fortunately, as a manager, it’s within your scope to trim this fat. Remember how freeing it is for yourself to operate without impractical constraints. And, keep in mind that 24% of employees said “Yes, there is red tape I’d like to cut at the company” — so there is ample opportunity for you to slash the red tape that is preventing your team’s progress (591 employees responded across 105 companies).


Here’s the best part of all of this: 80% of the answers will expose things that you have control over. You have control over what the policies in the company are, what projects are assigned to which employees and when, the goals of a project, the deadlines set, the amount of support that’s being given, and the sense of direction.

And for the things you don’t have control over —a difficult client you can’t fire right away, or an incompetent team executive who doesn’t report to you— knowing the impediments to progress can inform your decisions to a clearer path of progress.

Employee engagement isn’t as mystifying as it should be. Progress is the linchpin. Asking these questions can help you secure it.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Know Your Team. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.

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